Bill Would Establish Nursery, Programming in Women’s Correctional Facilities

DOVER – Recognizing the importance of forging bonds between all mothers and new babies, lawmakers filed legislation Sunday that would codify women’s services in prison and establishes a prison nursery.

House Bill 258 would empower the Delaware Department of Correction to establish correctional nursery programs for incarcerated women who give birth while in prison so they can reside with their newborns and raise them until they reach 18 months.

Data from the Department of Correction showed that from 2013 to 2018, 734 women were pregnant while serving time at Baylor Women’s Correctional Facility and 41 women were pregnant while completing treatment

The proposed correctional nursery program would include parenting, health and job-seeking education, strategies for self-care for the inmate and care of the infant and information regarding immunizations, follow-up treatment and community referrals as well supplies and equipment necessary for a new child. at Hazel D. Plant Women’s Treatment Facility. Between both facilities, more than 100 women gave birth in outside hospitals during that time period.

An inmate would be eligible for this voluntary program if she was pregnant at the time she was brought into custody, gives birth on or after the date the program is implemented and is subject to a sentence of no more than three years of incarceration, among other qualifications determined by the Department of Correction.

“This is simply biological – babies need immediate contact with mothers so the bonds can begin to be forged from day one. We should be ashamed of ourselves for pulling away children of incarcerated women so early-on,” said Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, the bill’s sponsor and chair of the House Corrections Committee.

“Instead of only seeing a child during visitation or behind the glass window of a correctional institution, nurseries provide a structured, safe space for children where their mothers are detained. This small act not only improves emotional and physical growth for the baby, but mom as well, encouraging rehabilitation and easing the transition home post-incarceration. We have to think creatively and boldly in order to prepare people for life after prison and stop the wheel of recidivism. I am proud to be part of this effort, which is going to give mothers a sense of purpose and help break the cycle to foster real change.”

From 1980 to 2014, the number of incarcerated women has increased more than 400 percent, which brings forth increased challenges and needs both on the prison system and in the community. Child bearing and rearing are especially complicated, with children of women inmates often placed in foster care or in the care of other relatives.

Studies show that the initial first bond between a parent and baby is critical – supporting brain development, emotional wellbeing and long-term mental health and resilience in children. Aside from those benefits, access to a nursery in a correctional facility can help to lower recidivism rates for women and further nurseries in correctional facilities.

“Incarcerated women deserve the same dignity as all other women. Motherhood is a life-changing experience and without the necessary supports in place, both mom and baby have the potential to suffer,” said House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, co-prime sponsor of this measure. “With this legislation we are helping the next generation grow and develop successfully, and adequately equipping women for life after incarceration. Prison nurseries are a quintessential building block of rehabilitation, and this initiative only furthers our efforts to reform the justice system.”

Incarcerated mothers who have access to prenatal care, mental health, supplies and parenting help have a structured support system which is extremely beneficial. For example, New York’s Bedford Hills facility, with a nursery and related support services, has a volunteer program that has a 3.5-percent recidivism rate among women entering the program, compared to New York’s overall female offender recidivism rate of nearly 30 percent.

“Prison sentences are there to punish criminals, not their children,” said Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, Senate sponsor and chair of Senate Corrections and Public Safety Committee. If we want to break the cycle of recidivism that so often extends from one generation to another, we should make sure we are not breaking the bond between mothers and their children, and instead, do all we can to prepare women serving jail sentences for a life after their release. That includes fostering a connection between them and their children so they can learn how to be caring, responsible mothers in a supervised setting.”  

Only nine states, including Washington and Nebraska, have prison nurseries available to women who give birth while serving a sentence, with only New York opening the nursery to women who give birth prior to incarceration. Delaware is making strides to join those trailblazing states.  

“I am deeply honored to have my name on legislation which will achieve the long-sought goal of giving mothers in custody the chance to bond with their babies, and to gain the skills necessary to provide good care for their babies and themselves,” said retired Superior Court Judge the Honorable Susan Del Pesco, the namesake of this legislation to commemorate her passion to support such a nursery for incarcerated women. “For decades other states have respected the motherhood of inmates; it is time for Delaware to do so, too.”